Ancient Pits of the Copper Country: Michigan History Magazine Sat Down with State of Michigan Archaeologist John R. Halsey to Discuss What He Has Learned about Miners Who Explored and Developed the Copper Country in the Mid-Nineteenth Century
Halsey, John R., Michigan History Magazine
In the late 1840s, copper miners in the western Lake Superior basin became aware that someone had been mining there before them. In reality, for several thousand years prior to European contact in the 1600s, prehistoric people had been mining copper to make thousands of tools, weapons and items of adornment. With this realization came curiosity about who had done the mining, how long ago and how much copper had been removed. Eventually, evidence of prehistoric copper mining in the form of thousands of pits called "Indian" or "ancient diggings" would be found over a swath 150 miles long and four to seven miles wide across Keweenaw,
Houghton and Ontonagon counties. As the miners cleared out these pits before establishing their own operations, a significant number of them recorded their observations and ideas.
Where did you find information on these prehistoric mines? Wasn't the western Upper Peninsula mostly a wilderness in the mid-nineteenth century?
The presence of native copper in the western Upper Peninsula had been known since the mid-1600s. The Ontonagon Boulder, a large mass of native copper on the bank of the Ontonagon River (now in the Smithsonian Institution) had been a pilgrimage point for European and American explorers for generations. Douglass Houghton's explorations in the 1830s and 1840 had provided the impetus for explorers and prospectors to look to the U. P. to make their fortunes. Along with them came storekeepers, tavern owners and newspapermen. I have made a systematic effort at locating all extant early references relating to prehistoric mining focusing on pioneering newspapers, mining company annual reports and company prospectuses from the Copper Country.
Who were the people that reported these findings?
The most dependable information comes from the mine agents, captains and superintendents, the highest ranking company men on the scene, and those most likely to be made aware of unusual or important discoveries made by the men in the mines. By contemporary standards, they were educated and had a broad base of real-world experience. The principal problem facing these pioneers was that no miners anywhere had ever dealt with native copper deposits of the size, richness and irregularity of those in the western Lake Superior basin.
Over their career, most of these men worked for several mining companies, sometimes offering assessments of the economic potential of new mining properties while employed by another. Newspapermen George D. Emerson and William J. Tenney offered immediate comments on discoveries being made in their localities. Although most have been forgotten, the contributions of some, notably Charles Whittlesey, live on today.
It is clear that quite a number of high-ranking officials across the spectrum of mines thought the evidence from the ancient diggings and their contents was of exceptional importance for economic reasons. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was the 1875 prospectus of the Minong Mining Company on Isle Royale in which eleven pages are devoted to the history and firsthand descriptions of "ancient diggings." I have identified seventy-seven individuals credited with discovery or reporting at sixty-seven locations that became working copper mines.
How did the prehistoric miners become aware of the native copper deposits?
Their first experience with native copper was probably the discovery of "drift" or "float" copper; pieces of copper ripped by glaciers from the veins and lodes of copper escaped in the bedrock and distributed over much of the Midwest more than ten thousand years ago. In prehistoric times, many copper veins were exposed at the ground surface. After their discovery of bedrock copper, the prehistoric miners appear to have focused their attention on that source. However, there is strong evidence that they dug for loose copper in the nearby glacial sands and gravels. Native copper does occur in other areas (Oklahoma, the Appalachians, New Jersey and Nova Scotia) than the Lake Superior basin.
The mining of enormous lodes of mass copper (more than one hundred tons) taxed even the expertise of nineteenth-century mining engineers and was clearly beyond the technological capabilities of prehistoric miners. In the nineteenth century, a large mass of copper had to be cut with chisels into pieces small enough to be removed from a mine. However, smaller exposures and masses were well within these capabilities and considerable ingenuity was expended in mining. The thousands of pits on Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula were not attempts to obtain the maximum amount of copper, but rather to secure small pieces of copper that were amenable to the metalworking techniques available to them: cold-hammering and then annealing or reheating to allow the copper to recrystallize and not become brittle. There were pure copper boulders lying on the surface virtually everywhere at the western end of Lake Superior, but they were just too big or smooth to be exploited effectively with stone hammers and flint knives.
When did the Copper Country miners first realize that someone had been there before them?
The first person to recognize and publicize the true nature of the various pits and depressions on copper veins was Samuel O. Knapp in the winter of 1847-48 at the site of what eventually become the Minesota Mine. For other observers, "previous workings" were efforts by earlier European mining efforts.
Who actually made the discoveries at the Minesota Mine is a murky question. At least one individual, William Spalding, took credit for the Minesota Mine discoveries a half-century later. Other writers claim other discoverers. Perhaps the key to sorting out this confusion lies in this statement in 1850 by John W. Foster and Josiah D. Whitney, who talked to Knapp. They wrote that Knapp "saw numerous evidences to convince him that this was an artificial excavation, and . . . with the assistance of two or three men, proceeded to explore it."
Regardless of who actually was on the scene, an extensive and detailed account appears in 1848 that references only Knapp (see at left). It is the baseline document for our modern understanding of what at least some of early miners thought about the "ancient diggings." The account offers much detail. What the pits looked like; why they were frequently overlooked; the presence of mining tools (hammerstones, gad, chisel); a heavily worked-over mass of copper left in the pit; a "facility" (the "skids" or logs placed under the copper mass); the probable use of fire in the mining process; ethnographic testimony as to a lack of native tradition regarding copper mining; an estimate of age based on early attempts at tree-ring dating; and, most important of all, the statement, "This discovery will lead to a new method of finding veins in this country, and may be a great benefit to some." Miners took this suggestion to heart. Sadly, it was the death warrant for most prehistoric pits as a source of latter-day archaeological information.
The source of the original Knapp article is uncertain. It appeared to have been written by someone identified a "correspondent" in Ontonagon and published in the Buffalo Express on June 14, 1848. But the microfilm copy of that newspaper leaves some uncertainty if it was actually published in mid-June 1848. Regardless, the story was quickly noted and reprinted extensively over the summer and autumn of 1848 in the United States and Great Britain.
Why did the discoverers take note of the ancient diggings?
The original contexts about the reports of "ancient diggings" were quite mundane: they supported requests for money. This is marvelously exemplified in a series of letters written in 1850 from Charles Whittlesey, superintendent of the Piscataqua Mining Company in Ontonagon County, to his superiors in Philadelphia.
At the same time, Dr. L. W. Clarke cannily noted in a September 18, 1850, letter: "Besides being a correct guide to follow the veins by, they [the ancient pits] will save a large amount of money in sinking shafts."
What did the discoverers see?
Once the prehistoric mining efforts were understood, the most commonly cited feature was the presence of unnatural pits and trenches. Many of the historic miners were in awe of the extent of these early mining efforts. After pits and trenches came reports of igneous cobble hammerstones weighing generally between ten and thirty-six pounds. Even if seldom stated, hammerstones almost certainly were found in the pits and trenches. Some of them were grooved for attachment to some kind of handle; in one case a cedar root was still twisted in the groove. Most were unmodified, suggesting that they were grasped with two hands and used to batter the trap rock enclosing the copper. However, W. H. Holmes observed that these would have made "very ineffective tools." Hammerstones were found in the mines sometimes as complete, but far more often as incomplete, specimens and fragments intermingled with the mining debris. Occasionally, the broken specimens were reported stacked in piles next to the pits. They occurred in prodigious quantities being measured, depending on the author, by the ton, cartload or millions.
In addition to hammerstones, there are also mining tools made of copper, notably chisels, wedges and gads, rare examples of knives, "projectile points," cop per mauls or sledges, even a small hammer. No metal picks were found.
Pits could be of surprising size. One pit at the Copper Falls Mine was seventy feet long and thirty-seven feet deep. Deep pits were difficult to enter. Climbing the rock face was probably not always possible or desirable. Trunks of trees with the branches trimmed to leave "rungs" were reported from several sites.
There are many statements about the quantities of charcoal found in the pits. The presumption is that wood fires were built against the mine walls and then the heated walls were doused with water, causing the hot stone to crack.
The report of a mass of detached copper at the Mineosta Mine resting upon a cribwork of six- to eight-inch-diameter logs of black oak revealed it must have been raised several feet, presumably through the use of levers. At the Waterbury Mine, blocks of stone removed in prehistoric times from the working face were said to weigh two to three tons and must have required levers to move them.
Other reports indicate facilities developed within the pits and crevices, such as a gutter or trough made of cedar bark to carry off water from the mine; drains cut into bedrock to carry off water; a scaffolding of white-birch poles that had been used as a landing to assist in removing the excavated rock; and the placement of large boulders (300 to 400 pounds) to hold up the hanging ground.
Removing mining detritus and water was also a necessity. This apparently required some equipment other than bare hands. On both Isle Royale and the Keweenaw Peninsula there were reports of wooden bowl-shaped utensils, at least one having "splintery pieces of rock and gravel embedded in its rim." Cedarwood objects, shaped much like canoe paddles, found at several mines showed extensive wear and may have been used as shovels.
A unique specimen at the Hilton Mine near Ontonagon was a leather bag, eleven inches long and seven inches wide, found lying on a mass of native copper. It was interpreted as a carrying bag for mined pieces of copper.
What happened to the artifacts found in the pits?
Artifacts were viewed as interesting curiosities and not much more. This should not be surprising considering that we are talking about a primitive industry on the edge of American civilization. Several references suggest that stone hammers and other artifacts were kept for a time in some on-site mine offices along with rock and ore samples. There was even a suggestion of what might have been an early effort at "on-site interpretation." The thought that one of these pits might be preserved in place was highly naive. It is unlikely that the copper and the artifacts said to have been "exhibited in place" stayed that way for very long.
In at least one case, hammerstones were put to a latter-day "practical" use. Foster and Whitney in 1850 reported that at the Minesota mine location, "The amount of ancient hammers found in this vicinity exceeded ten cart-loads, and Mr. K., [Samuel Knapp], with little reverence for the past, employed a portion of them in walling up a spring." U.S. geologist Charles T. Jackson collected a number of hammerstones. When his collection of rocks, minerals and ores was cataloged in at the Smithsonian Institution in 1854, there was a total of six "Indian stone-hammers" from two different locations along with the hundreds of mineralogical specimens. One of the most important collectors seems to have been Charles Whittlesey. In his early writings, he specifically uses "I had" and "I have" in reference to pieces of timber from the Minesota and Waterbury mines as well as a "shovel." Occasionally, there were primitive attempts to preserve some of the organic materials through careful drying. The fate of these materials is unknown. Some of the larger masses of copper found in the pits were given a brief reprieve before they were melted down.
In the end, it seems that the excavation methods employed by historic miners resulted in many/most artifacts being roughly evicted from their resting places and tossed onto a spoil pile. Theodore Lewis gives us an idea of the scope from observations made in 1888 at the remains of a "clean out" at the Caledonia Mine in Ontonagon County. "The debris had been dumped in a heap, I noticed a few hammers protruding, and in less than an hour, by using a sharp stick, I exposed 132 grooved hammers, ranging in size from a hen's egg to twelve or fifteen pounds in weight, only a few of which were unbroken, and also a broken stone ax and several large hand hammers."
What were the long-term consequences of these discoveries?
The early notices of prehistoric mining had a major economic impact that insured the destruction of the ancient pits. According to Cyrus Mendenhall, a well-known early mining engineer:
The fact is, had it not been for the discovery of the "Ancient Mining Pits"--made early in 1848 by Mr. Knapp of the Minesota Mine--that, and all other mining in the Ontonagon district, would, under this general discouragement, want of success, and distrust of value, added to the great expense and difficulty of prosecuting such work at that date, have been abandoned before the close of that year.... That discovery of Mr. Knapp at the Minnesota (sic) location, and the success to which it led, infused new energy into that and other enterprises of the kind wherever other 'ancient pits' could be found.
Eleven years later, F. G. White of the Osceola Consolidated Mining Company echoed Mendenhall on the significance of "ancient diggings" as a guide to economic well-being:
The ancient mining upon this belt was also very extensive, which, taken with the fact long ago developed in Ontonagon County, that in most cases this mining was done in the vicinity, and usually in contact with copper in quantity, gives of itself a warrant of promise to investors in the enterprise.
There was a wide range of opinions as to who had done the mining, with the lost race of "Mound Builders," or Aztecs, or Toltecs often being credited. Local Native Americans at the time consistently denied having any idea who had done the mining or how long ago. But there was an undercurrent of opinion of men who knew the country and the native people that struck close to what we hold as the truth today. Geologist Charles T. Jackson may have summarized it best when he wrote in 1849:
It is an error to suppose that any more civilized or superior race of people did this work, for the tools betray their true Chippeway (sic) origin, and are such as all Northern Indians made use of prior to the coming of Europeans. I am perfectly convinced that most of the native copper veins, now opened and wrought by European and American miners on Lake Superior, were known and worked superficially by the red men, hundreds if not thousands of years before America was discovered by Columbus.
These nineteenth-century accounts present a detailed picture of the tools, facilities and mining techniques used at a "fully operational" prehistoric copper mine. Prehistoric mining of copper on the Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale spanned many thousands of years and had ceased well before historic contact. Given the time span and geographic extent, it is also among the most extensive mineral extractive activity ever undertaken by any prehistoric people in North America.
As mining was to be his chief business, a knowledge of the rocks and vein phenomena had to be acquired. As a rule, this man was not familiar with the science of geology and mineralogy, or with the arts of mining and exploring; of these he scarcely understood the first principles. But this tyro, who was in time to become the skillful explorer and successful manager of mine affairs, was a bold man and full of expedients. Everything was to be learned by practical experiment, by diligent application, and at the expense of toil, hardship and sufferings untold.
(John H. Forster, 1879)
At the junction of the transverse and South Pewabic veins, an ancient pit had been opened to the depth of 22 feet. The ancients evidently stopped sinking at that depth on account of their not being able to either take out or avoid a large mass lying across the bottom of the pit.
(H. McKenzie, 1865)
A Singular Discovery
A correspondent of the Buffalo Express, writing under the date of June 14, 1848, from Ontonagon noted:
Mr. Knapp, of the Vulcan Mining Company, has lately made some very singular discoveries here in working one of the veins which he lately found. He worked into an old cave which had been excavated centuries ago. This led them to look for other works of the same sort, and they have found a number of sinks in the earth which they have traced a long distance. By digging into those sinks, they find them to have been made by the hand of man. It appears that the ancient miners went on a different principle from what they do at the present time. The greatest depth yet found in these holes is thirty feet. After getting down to a certain depth, they drifted along the vein, making an open cut.
These cuts have been filled nearly to a level by the accumulation of soil, and we find trees of the largest growth standing in this gutter; and also find that trees of a very large growth have grown up and died, and decayed many years since; in the same place there are now standing trees of over three hundred years' growth. Last week they dug down into a new place, and about twelve feet below the surface found a mass of copper that will weigh from eight to ten tons. This mass was buried in ashes, and it appears that they could not handle it, and had no means of cutting it, and probably built fire to melt or separate the rock from it, which might be done by heating, and then dashing on cold water. This piece of copper is as pure and clean as a new cent; the upper surface has been pounded clear and smooth.
It appears that this mass of copper was taken from the bottom of a shaft, at the depth of about thirty feet. In sinking this shaft from where the mass now lies, they followed the course of the vein, which pitches considerably. This enabled them to raise it as far as the hole came up with a slant. At the bottom of the shaft they found skids of black oak, from eight to twelve inches in diameter. These sticks were charred through, as if burnt. They found large wooden wedges in the same situation. In this shaft they found a miner's gad and a narrow chisel made of copper. I do not know whether these copper tools are tempered or not, but their make displays good workmanship.
They have taken out more than a ton of cobble stones, which have been used as mallets. These stones were nearly round, with a score cut around the centre, and look as if this score was cut for the purpose of putting a withe round for a handle. The Chippewa Indians all say that this work was never done by Indians. This discovery will lead to a new method of finding veins in this country, and may be a great benefit to some. I suppose they will keep finding new wonders for some time yet, as it is but a short time since they first found the old mine. There is copper here in abundance, and I think people will begin to dig it in a few years. Mr. Knapp has found considerable silver during this post winter.
August 15: "We have undoubtedly one of the best locations in the country; we have cleaned up some Indian diggings, and they show copper in abundance. I trust soon to see the Piscataqua one of the companies with the Cliff and Minesota." August 16: "Enclosed I send you [a] list of supplies needed for thirteen hands eight months. Our Indian diggings are opening beautifully, and justify a large outlay--they show abundance of copper and regular walls."
(Charles Whittlesey, 1850)
The high antiquity of this mining is inferred from these facts: That the trenches and pits were filled even with the surrounding surface, so that their existence was not suspected until many years after the region had been thrown open to active exploration; that upon the piles of rubbish were found growing trees which differed in no degree, as to size and character, from those in the adjacent forest; and that the nature of the materials with which the pits were filled, such as a fine-washed clay enveloping halfidecayed leaves, and the bones of such quadrupeds as the bear, deer, and caribou, indicated the slow accumulation of years, rather than a deposit resulting from a torrent of water.
(John W. Foster, 1874)
The survey of the mineral land in the vicinity of Lake Superior, has disclosed the site of an ancient copper mine, whence, in all probability, the copper of the metal ornaments, instruments, &c., found in the mounds was derived. The remains of the implements and of the ore, as left by the ancient miners, are exhibited in place, and afford an interesting illustration of the state of arts among the mound builders. The geological surveyors have promised to make accurate measurements, and drawings of everything of interest connected with these works, and to present them, with suitable descriptions, to the Institution, far publication."
(Joseph Henry, 1851)
About 1872, Mr. A. C. Davis worked, on the island, a property called the Minong, and brought to Detroit a very interesting piece of ancient work--a mass of copper of 4 or 5 tons, taken from the bottom of an ancient trench along a vein. This mass had been deprived of all portions of copper that could be detached by pounding with stone hammers, and the whole surface of the mass had been pounded into deep pits and ridges in attempts to detach other pieces. It showed an immense amount of labor done. Mr. John R. Grout, of the Detroit copper-smelting works, shipped the mass to the Michigan University at Ann Arbor, and offered to sell it to the University at half its cash value, but the Regents did not make the purchase.' Perhaps they lacked money; perhaps they lacked appreciation. The mass was shipped back to the smelting-works and went into the furnace. Thus a thing of very great interest was lost. Had the University taken it, it would be the most interesting in all its collections, and of special interest to Michigan.
(Alvinus Wood, 1907)
To learn more about how Native Americans mined and used copper, visit us at www.michiganhistorymagazine.com and click on "Miskwabik--Red Metal."
John Halsey is the State Archaeologist of Michigan and a Michigan History contributing editor.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Ancient Pits of the Copper Country: Michigan History Magazine Sat Down with State of Michigan Archaeologist John R. Halsey to Discuss What He Has Learned about Miners Who Explored and Developed the Copper Country in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Contributors: Halsey, John R. - Author. Magazine title: Michigan History Magazine. Volume: 93. Issue: 3 Publication date: May-June 2009. Page number: 40+. © 2008 State of Michigan, through its State Administrative Board and Department of History, Arts and Libraries. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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